Debate: Does Computer Use Cause Carpal Tunnel?

Repetitive motion injury is a term that is thrown around a lot these days. Typing at the keyboard or using the mouse for hours and hours upon end just seems like it has to be horrible for your joints, right? Never in the time of man has anybody used a single set of joints as much as we do now, right? Well, not so fast…

Carpal tunnel is big money–medications, doctor’s views, braces, surgery, books, disability claims, missed work, etc. Forty percent of work place injuries are attributed to carpal tunnel syndrome. We should sue computer makers and mouse makers! Make these horrible input devices illegal! Right?

Well, maybe not. What’s the current medical research regarding carpal tunnel?
“…computer use does not pose a severe occupational hazard for developing symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.”
–JAMA. 2003; 289:2963-2969.

One study (J Occup Med 1991 May;33(5):627-31) compared median nerve sensory and motor tests in a working population with significant repetitive hand usage to a normal population. No significant differences were detected between the two groups. They concluded that their “data provide[d] very little evidence for the concept of cumulative trauma as a prominent cause of carpal tunnel syndrome in American industry.”

Woah.

Other studies have shown that up to two-thirds of people claiming carpal tunnel syndrome were either obese or had an underlying medical disease that could be causing or contributing to their condition. When these medical conditions were removed, Nathan (Ocup Med 1992 Apr;34(4):379-83) concluded that “individual characteristics, not job-related factors, are the primary determinants of slowing of sensory conduction of the median nerve and carpal tunnel syndrome.”

So you are unlikely to get carpal tunnel unless you have some other medical condition than predisposes you to it.

“Individual characteristics, not job-related factors, are the primary determinants of slowing of sensory conduction of the median nerve and carpal tunnel syndrome.”
– Ocup Med 1992 Apr;34(4):379-83.

Classically the associated diseases are the following: rheumatoid arthritis, menopause, hypothyroidism, acromegaly, end-stage renal disease, pregnancy, and obesity. Even then the data is not clear that the repetitive use contributes any.

Of course, these were over 10 years ago. Has this data been reproduced recently? What about computer usage?

The Journal of the American Medical Association studied Computer Use and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in 2003. They screened and surveyed heavy-use computer workers looking for a cause and effect relationship. They really did not find much and concluded “that computer use does not pose a severe occupational hazard for developing symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. Harvard has recently sent out a press release partially titled “Computer Use Deleted As Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Cause.”

If you are worried about repetitive use injury from your computer use, read through some information regarding these types of injuries.

The current research shows that computer use has very little role in causing carpal tunnel syndrome. Common medical diseases that are known to cause carpal tunnel are much more likely to blame than any repetitive use injury.

 

About David Kirk

David Kirk is one of the original founders of tech-recipes and is currently serving as editor-in-chief. Not only has he been crafting tutorials for over ten years, but in his other life he also enjoys taking care of critically ill patients as an ICU physician.
View more articles by David Kirk

The Conversation

Follow the reactions below and share your own thoughts.

11 Responses to “Debate: Does Computer Use Cause Carpal Tunnel?”

  1. December 02, 2009 at 12:08 pm, Anonymous said:

    I’m not sure what the causes of carpal tunnel are but I’m sure mine has developed because I use the computer too much. Ever since I was 10 I had a computer and worked on it every day. After 15 straight years of typing and clicking my joints hurt as hell. I don’t have any other health problems and I’m not obese. You can’t take two groups and study them for a month and say there were no changes. That’s not a relevant test.

    Reply

  2. July 05, 2010 at 1:31 pm, FeleciaRose said:

    YES there is a cause and effect relationship between carpal tunnel syndrome and computer use. The Harvard report uses as its basis flawed research (if not irresponsible). I’m a Harvard grad school grad and know how those guys like to sound important. In fact, the disappearance of the “carpal tunnel epidemic” of the 80s and 90s amounts to a cover-up. I’m preparing a report on the topic and will release it soon. If you want a copy — maybe Tech Recipes will let me share it.

    Reply

    • July 11, 2010 at 6:59 pm, MANHATTANNEWY said:

      I’d like a copy, manhattannewy@VERIZON.NET

      Reply

      • July 11, 2010 at 8:07 pm, FeleciaRose said:

        Hi! happy to oblige — sent you an email to confirm — what’s your experience with CTS or RSI? cheers! Felecia

        Reply

        • February 16, 2011 at 5:56 am, Dianem527 said:

          Moderator please feel free to edit but please keep the attempt to inform in and I had to type this hunt and peck because I still have stitches in my hand from surgery.

          If you have symptoms of carpal tunnel, get to a qualified hand surgeon and get tested, treated and do whatever is necessary to minimize impact on your wrists and hands.

          I was just tested and had surgery a week later for severe carpal tunnel. I Quote the specialist who did the nerve conduction study “it is not what you do that causes carpal tunnel, it is an anatomical defect. I’m surprised you don’t have any muscle damage yet. You’ve even damaged your elbows. I can’t even get a response in several places.”

          He was amazed I was still working full time 40 – 60 hours a week and commuting 3 hours a day. He had assumed I was on disability.

          What I do aggravates the anatomical defect. Typing since I was in high school, keystroking to enter raw data and billing codes and costs, cleaning the garage, cleaning cabinets and floors, toting 3 babies around, carrying things which should take 2 people, clearing an acre of desert, digging up bolders, being the …..

          Okay, you get the idea, you get older, joints wear out, cartilage either tears or starts to disintegrate in the joints and you get inflammation which causes swelling and compression of the carpal tunnel and yes, being BMI challeged can work on it too, because by being BMI challeged excess body mass is distributed all over the body, including the wrists and too much stuff in a small space = compression of the carpal tunnel and the nerves.

          I just want my hands back.

          Reply

    • September 18, 2012 at 1:54 pm, Dolores Matz said:

      > I would like a copy too. I have been a medical transcriptionist for close to 30 years now using a computer and original mouse. I have carpal tunnel syndrome. I worked at least 8 hours a day for five to six days a week transcribing x-ray reports, typed every word, every letter (not editing). I am fighting the courts now about my job causing this problem. My employer even is on my side, not fighting against me, but supporting me. I have had two appeals so far and denied both times because my doctor won’t write a letter stating that my job caused to the problem. I do not knit, sew or crochet and have no other hobbies that I do with my hands. Please, if you can, send me a copy of your report. Thank you.

      Reply

    • October 24, 2013 at 12:06 am, J said:

      @FeliciaRose I’d like a copy too please
      jnl2034@gmail.com

      Reply

  3. July 01, 2011 at 4:50 am, Anonymous said:

    nice post

    Reply

  4. August 29, 2011 at 10:02 pm, karolkate said:

    @feliciarose
    i’m currently doing a research regarding cts&computers and i would love to interview you. can you send me your e-mail? thanks

    Reply

  5. February 29, 2012 at 12:07 am, Lindsay said:

    The heavy usage of computers does “contribute” to carpal tunnel… I mean just sitting around your recliner all day won’t get you that…

    Reply

  6. January 11, 2013 at 1:29 am, MH said:

    I don’t need research to know: I am not overweight and had no other conditions that triggered it. I started working on a graphic design major, and next thing I knew was the pain from carpal tunnel becoming my new reality. Hand/arm position in extensive use (which is necessary for some jobs and schools) is unnatural. Most of my colleagues had some experience, and considerably many had serious problems and dread it all the time.

    This is not to say that other repetitive hand movements can’t irritate it as well. But computer does. In women more than in men.

    Reply

Leave a Reply